A wing and a prayer: is there hope for Britain’s loneliest bat?

A wing and a prayer: is there hope for Britain’s loneliest bat?

In a dank, disused railway tunnel in West Sussex hangs a brown, furry parcel, the sole known representative of Britain’s rarest mammal. Scientists don’t like to apply emotive adjectives to animals, but if ever there were a lonesome creature, it would be this greater mouse-eared bat.

The bat’s reappearance in December for its 20th winter has astounded its guardians, because of the animal’s great age, but also because it was missing, assumed dead, for nearly two years.

Since 2002, the bat – the size of a small rabbit, with a wingspan stretching in flight to nearly half a metre – has spent winters clinging to the cool bricks of the tunnel. But it vanished in December 2019 and was missing when members of Sussex Bat Group returned in January and February 2020.

Last year, the pandemic prevented a count, so its fate was unknown. “We assumed it had run its course,” says Tony Hutson, a bat expert and retired entomologist from the Natural History Museum, who discovered the bat. “But it returned and looked pretty healthy this winter.”

Where Britain’s rarest mammal spent the pandemic is just one question among many it poses. Each spring, the bat stirs, flaps slowly down the tunnel and vanishes into green woodlands beyond. It remains unseen until the following winter, when it returns to its hibernation roost. Where did it come from? Why is it here? Why is it alone? And can it be helped?

Lead Image: A greater mouse-eared bat in flight. Photograph: Wildlife/Alamy.

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